Future of city-owned building involved in potential asbestos exposure for 115 Austin firefighters

Investigations

AUSTIN (KXAN) — After arriving at a three-alarm fire at a nearly-vacant warehouse in north Austin, officials with the Austin Fire Department discovered the blaze had potentially disturbed asbestos in the building.

“Our job is to go into dangerous environments,” said President of the Austin Firefighters Association Bob Nicks.

He said the threat of asbestos wasn’t a new one for Austin fire crews, but that doesn’t make it any less worrisome.

“Most of the brick-and-mortar downtown on Sixth Street has asbestos in it,” President of the Austin Firefighters Association Bob Nicks explained. “It’s around a lot, and it’s not to be worried about when it’s in that form — encapsulated. When it’s not airborne, it’s not a hazard to us.”

However, once it’s released or disturbed, the substance becomes a dangerous carcinogen.

Michelle Tanzola, a spokesperson for AFD, said the department tries to warn crews of any hazardous materials or other threats before they arrive on scene.

“We have permits on record for those sorts of things, so the firefighters know before they arrive that those materials are on site,” she explained in an email. “Other than making an anecdotal assumption based on the age of a structure (however, even then remodeling and/or abatement could have occurred), since asbestos is a substance that’s not an issue unless disturbed in some way, there’s no way for them to know before they arrive if it’s in a building’s tile glue, ceiling tiles, etc.”

  • Warehouse fire at I-35 and Blackson Avenue in north Austin May 6, 2021 (COURTESY: Austin Fire Department)
  • Vacant warehouse fire off I-35 northbound service road near US 183 May 6, 2021 (KXAN Photo/Andrew Choat)
  • Vacant warehouse fire off I-35 northbound service road near US 183 May 6, 2021 (KXAN Photo/Andrew Choat)

What’s next for exposed firefighters?

When the substance was identified on scene at the fire at the warehouse in the St. John’s neighborhood on May 6, Nicks said the department immediately began taking certain safety precautions.

Some — such as keeping breathing respirators on and decontaminating gear afterwards — are steps taken after every fire, due to the other carcinogens and unhealthy chemicals crews could be exposed to. Other further measures were required because of the potential exposure — such as chest x-rays for nearly every member of the crew to establish a “baseline,” in case of any future health problems.

“Then we can kind of prove it happened at this point, in this event, and that helps us with treatment going forward,” Nicks said.

All the gear used at the scene, he noted, has been sent off to be analyzed.

Still, Nicks said, “Our job makes us anxious sometimes. There are probably some people that might be worried.”

Michael Glynn, a trustee with the Texas State Association of Firefighters, said it seemed like a “daily occurrence” to hear of someone being exposed to a harmful material or toxic chemical on the job. Cancer diagnoses are common, as are other potential health ramifications.

“We don’t always know what we were exposed to, but the fact of the matter is: every fire we go on, it’s off-gassing, it’s burning. We are ending up with carcinogens that we are exposed to,” he said.

That’s why the association has been advocating for better Worker’s Compensation and protective measures, even after a firefighter has retired.

“You can be exposed to a carcinogen on the very last day that you are working, which is a great likelihood, and so you will not know that you’ve developed cancer immediately,” he said. “You go into retirement. You are a year out of retirement, and you’re diagnosed with cancer. Those presumptive laws that protected you while you were on the job? They go away when you retire.”

He said the best option would be providing a five to ten years, or even lifelong, benefits and protection for these first responders.

“It’s what the city owes them. It’s what the state owes them, for just doing their job,” Glynn said.

What happens to the building?

The city bought the property — a former car dealership — in 2013 for $2.85 million, but it has remained unused by the general public for years, according to real estate records obtained by KXAN.

Using bonds approved in 2006, the city also bought a neighboring former Home Depot property, intending to turn the block into a police substation and municipal court. That never happened. In 2018, KXAN found the Home Depot location was being used to store compost bins.

While the cause of the fire is still being investigated, Tanzola said the damage to the structure is estimated at $100,000 with $10,000 in damage to the building’s contents.

Those contents? Storage racks and a few other unwanted items left behind by the recently-vacated tenant, Troublemaker Studios. According to a city spokesperson, it was a film production company using the space as storage for movie props, but they had moved out prior to the fire.

Hours before the blaze, a city spokesperson confirmed that staff with the city’s Building Services department were at the warehouse, inspecting it and looking at “better ways to secure the building.”

However, city leaders have been eyeing the building for years.

“When I was elected to the Austin City Council, everybody had the question: what is going on with the old Home Depot and car dealership that has just been sitting there for years?” said council member Greg Casar, representing District 4. “The project basically had been abandoned.”

For a while, the city considered building a police substation on the site. Whatever the plan, Casar said a $10 million check would need to be cut to pay back debt on the property, if anything was ever to be done about it.

“Legally-bound to be nothing,” Casar said.

That’s when he and other city leaders started connecting with people in the St. John’s neighborhood about how they would like to see that property be used. Casar said they consulted nearly 1,000 people in total.

In July 2020, City Council approved a resolution in support of the city manager initiating the process of “repositioning the property” and rezoning it into a combined mixed use are including commercial, vertical and mixed use.

Casar said the goal was to provide affordable housing, community parks and green space and even office space for non-profits. He emphasized the importance of staying true to the needs and wants of the neighbors.

Mock-up of plans for the city-owned property at St. John's and Interstate 35. (Image from city documents)
Mock-up of plans for the city-owned property at St. John’s and Interstate 35. (Image from city documents)

“So that people that are getting pushed out of the neighborhood by rising housing prices can actually have an affordable place to stay,” he said. “The St. John neighborhood is a historic part of Austin. It is a historically Black community — an original freedman’s community of people who were formerly enslaved coming and establishing their own community in Austin. Many times, the City of Austin neglected and didn’t support that community.”

Recently, KXAN investigators highlighted a proposal by two architects to turn the property into housing for people experiencing homelessness. As KXAN’s Kevin Clark reported, their plan didn’t gain traction with city leaders, and the deadline for developers to submit bids passed. Six bids had been submitted when the RFP process closed in late March.

Now, Casar said city staff would grade those six application from developers and bring the “recommended, top” choice before city council for a vote in June.

“Really, we are at one of the very last stages of what has been a grueling process to fix something that, frankly, has been neglected by the city for too long,” he said.

KXAN investigator Avery Travis pressed Casar on why the process has taken so long and if something could have been done sooner to prevent the blaze that potentially exposed these Austin firefighters.

“The city moves too slowly on projects,” he said. “We’ve been pushing as hard as we can — we’ve had hundreds of people pushing the city to move forward. In many ways, a decision many years ago to buy this property without ever having the focus, attention, community support or the dollars to ever renovate this property have allowed it to fall into disrepair.”

He went on to say, “I am really proud of the commitment of people not giving up on this.”

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